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The San Luis Valley encompasses 80,000 square miles of high altitude desert in southern Colorado, ringed on three sides by mountain ranges and filled with artesian wells which have slowly been sucked dry. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Big Colorado water diversion projects itching to get going on long-sought dam and pipeline dreams are rushing to get first in line for thirsty Douglas County’s $68.2 million in federal stimulus money. 

Drinking water dams and pipelines have joined smaller-scale local water treatment and sewage projects, for totaling $247 million of the $280 million in overall stimulus requests in Douglas County so far, a county spokeswoman said. The other categories making up the remainder of the $280 million in proposals include broadband, economic recovery and mental health delivery. 

Some of the biggest requests for Douglas County’s share of American Rescue Plan Act spending come from drinking water developers looking to jumpstart projects that can take decades to complete.

An $828 million, two-reservoir, 125-miles-of-pipeline project led by Parker’s water department wants $20 to 30 million of Douglas County’s stimulus to jumpstart the engineering and environmental work. The project would pull junior water rights off the South Platte River near Sterling in high runoff years, fill the new reservoirs, and pipe drinking water down to high-growth cities such as Parker, Castle Rock and others. 

The big water diversion projects are certain to stir up political and environmental controversy for seeking funds committed by a Democratic Biden administration to support ideas some conservation groups find ecologically unsound. 

A second big request on Douglas County’s plate is a $20 million bid from Renewable Water Resources, which has raised near-unanimous opposition to its proposal to buy up San Luis Valley groundwater, pipe it over the Front Range, and sell it to drinking water providers in Douglas County and other growing communities. 

“Rivers are sacrifice zones for Colorado’s unsustainable growth-obsessed economy and culture,” said Gary Wockner, who has fought other big diversions like the Northern Integrated Supply Project and the expansion of Gross Reservoir on behalf of Save the Poudre and Save the Colorado. 

“The Colorado Water Plan codified the concept of trying to drain every drop of legally allowed water out of every river before it reaches the state line,” Wockner said. “The South Platte is already a low-flowing polluted mess,” he added, and the latest diversion proposal “would only make it worse.”

Douglas County held the first of a planned series of live and streamed town halls discussing the American Rescue Plan requests Thursday night, with staff providing information on each of the $280 million in proposals so far. More town halls are planned for early 2022, county spokeswoman Wendy Manitta Holmes said. County commissioners have months of deliberations to go before they allocate the $68.2 million. 

The ambitious, multi-county water projects could be in for disappointment. County officials are not sure yet what restrictions the U.S. Treasury could put on stimulus spending, Holmes said. County staff has asked the Treasury department to provide more guidance on, for example, whether DougCo’s share of the stimulus could be spent in other counties for sprawling projects like the water diversions. 

Other, simpler water projects making up the bulk of the $247 million in category requests include water treatment, reservoir and pipeline capacity, and sewage disposal, from Highlands Ranch to Sedalia. Seeking citizen input on the biggest priorities is exactly the reason for the extended town halls, Holmes said. 

“These decisions have not been made,” she said. “That’s why this public process is occurring.” 

Leaders of the water diversion projects say an award from Douglas County would help Front Range community leaders begin to solve their burgeoning growth problems. Many Douglas County communities rely on tapping the depleting Denver Basin aquifer for drinking water supplies that are not renewable, and most have sought renewable sources from mountain rivers filled by melting snowpack. 

Parker’s proposal, a joint project with the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District and Castle Rock’s water department, notes that population growth in Parker alone will balloon the city from 60,000 residents to 160,000 in coming years. The South Platte diversions would fill two new reservoirs to be built in farm and ranch country straddling Interstate 76, one called Iliff and the other, in a Phase 2, called Fremont Butte. 

Parker has bought up agricultural land and water rights around the South Platte, and also filed for recent junior water rights for river flows that run in high-water years. Despite drought on the Western Slope, relatively high runoff in the South Platte basin meant that if the reservoirs existed, the junior rights could have substantially filled them this summer, said Parker Water and Sanitation District Manager Ron Redd. 

Agreements with the Lower South Platte district would supply agricultural water back to local farmers in dry years, Redd added, saying the project is not the much-maligned “buy and dry” of farmland. 

Revenue from the water could even be used to pay back Douglas County for the stimulus money, if federal rules allow it, and create a revolving fund for future water-related projects, Redd said. An initial infusion from Douglas County would be used to buy up property for the reservoirs, complete engineering, and continue environmental studies. Preliminary reports from consultants say the project might not need Army Corps of Engineers permits that can take years to procure, because they would not destroy wetlands and would place reservoirs in stream basins that are often dry, the Parker proposal says.

As for competition from the San Luis Valley pipeline, Redd said, “We’re not real fans of the project.” There are too many political hurdles to the proposal, and the valley is already suffering from water depletion, Redd said. 

It will take more than that level of shade-throwing to deter Renewable Water Resources, which has been looking to sign paying customers for its proposed pipeline out of the valley and into expanding Front Range communities. An agreement using stimulus money would give Douglas County access to needed water at less than half the rate of $40,000 to $50,000 per acre-foot being asked of many municipal water buyers, said RWR spokesman Sean Duffy. 

“There’s that opportunity to invest very low for a very high quality water product,” Duffy said. “And those numbers are not going to stay put forever.” Drawing on the San Luis Valley supply, which RWR claims would not diminish groundwater there, “largely solves the need at a significant below-market rate,” he said.

Former Gov. Bill Owens is part of the RWR partnership. Some Douglas County officials, Duffy said, have been receptive to a proposal that’s “been designed very, very intentionally by people who’ve been in Colorado for a long time and understand water, and why people get worked up about it, and rightfully so.”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...